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University governance in a new age of regulation

  • 29 August 2019
Professor Steven Jones, Nick Hillman and Professor Michael Shattock (L to R)

The Higher Education Policy Institute is today publishing University governance in a new age of regulation: A conversation between Professor Steven Jones and Nick Hillman, with a Foreword by Professor Michael Shattock (HEPI Report 119). The report looks at the changing roles of, and growing demands on, governors of higher education institutions.

Steven Jones, the co-author of the report and a Professor in Higher Education at the University of Manchester, said:

This report asks whether university governance is fit for purpose. While the regulatory framework for higher education has changed rapidly in recent decades, the way in which institutional operations are stewarded by governing bodies has mostly continued as normal.

The three contributors to this report have first-hand experience of educational governance, and they draw upon it to engage with a range of important questions for the sector. Who should be empowered to run universities? Which principles should be followed? Do lay-member majorities marginalise academic and student voices? And how can governing bodies most robustly defend their institutions – and the wider university sector – within an increasingly hostile external environment?

Nick Hillman, the co-author of the report and the Director of HEPI, said:

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of university governance when it comes to protecting and improving our world-class higher education sector. We talk endlessly about the decisions governors make on things like vice-chancellors’ pay, admissions, whether universities are investing ethically and the restructuring of departments. But we don’t speak enough about how governors are chosen, how they operate and whether they are up to the job.

As institutions enter an uncertain post-Brexit period, and in England under the eye of a new regulator, their roles will become even more important. This paper looks at some of the issues facing governors, the potential tensions between staff and governors and the immense challenges in overseeing large, complicated and autonomous institutions.

Professor Michael Shattock, who contributed a Foreword to the report, said:

Governance is of particular importance in higher education today. But questions of governance effectiveness run right through a university, embracing not just the governing body but the roles of the executive, of senates/academic boards, of faculties/schools/colleges and of academic departments.

Current thinking favours a “business model” where lay-dominated governing bodies act as if they were company boards, but governing bodies do not have a particularly good record in regard to vice-chancellors’ pay or in some well-publicised individual institutional difficulties.

Too much is being imposed on governing bodies by external authorities. This is not an effective way to run universities: the academic community feels disempowered and the danger is that the decline of “shared governance” will come to be reflected in the academic product.

Notes for Editors

  1. Professor Michael Shattock is the project leader for the research programme on higher education governance at the UCL / IOE and Oxford Centre for Global Higher Education and his latest book (with Dr Aniko Horvat) is The Governance of British Higher Education: the impact of governmental, financial and market pressures (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). Professor Steven Jones works at the Manchester Institute of Education, part of the University of Manchester, and has previously co-authored reports for the Sutton Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Higher Education Academy and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Nick Hillman is Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a governor at two universities and a former school governor.
  2. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.
  3. This is the second recent HEPI publication on university governance, following Payment for university governors? A discussion paper (HEPI Report 118) by Alison Wheaton, which was released on 11thJuly 2019.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    A very interesting read and timely debate.

    As an ex School Governor Chair, ex student representative on Faculty (1960s), ex Voluntary Sector (Health Service, Police and Local Council) Vice Chair, ex lay magistrate, ex Business sector representative on the Board of a Polytechnic and serial volunteer I could empathise with many of the statements.

    I am reminded of the phrase “We may be Volunteers but that doesn’t make us Amateurs”.

    Outsiders can prevent “Group Think”.

    From the discussion, I do not favour a majority of Lay Members and would support greater diversity of individuals and representation of Academic and Non Academic staff as well as Students.

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